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Understanding Localism in Surfing

Unfriendly locals and surf gangs have been terrorizing some of the most popular surf spots around the globe since the 1960s. This hostile behavior, commonly referred to as surf localism, is an attempt to deter outsiders from enjoying coveted and choice waves. Fortunately, physical violence isn’t as prevalent in most lineups as it has been in the past. However, some forms of localism can still be found at numerous consistent surf breaks around the world.

Localism in surfing is without a doubt the dark and ugly side of what is otherwise a phenomenal sport. Luckily, there are effective ways to avoid the majority of the abuse and prevent it from ruining a quality surf session. Prepare to be empowered.

Why So Angry?

It doesn’t take a PhD in psychology or sociology to explain the surfing localism phenomenon. Great surf spots are cherished, the popularity of the sport continues to rise, and quality breaks near populated areas can get crowded quickly. As a result, some regular surfers of a spot get very territorial; and instead of searching for less-crowded waves, they attempt to minimize the number of surfers at their favored break.

Since the sport is completely unregulated, surly locals bully those they don’t recognize and hope that the outsider will feel so unwelcome that they’ll find someplace else to surf. When you boil it down, most of the aggressive behavior displayed by these seemingly angry surfers stems from frustration and a selfish desire to control access to waves.

Forms of Localism

  • Signs and barriers: Hostile locals will sometimes post warning signs for outsiders and/or attempt to physically block access to a beach.
  • Verbal attacks: Insults and shouting tirades are widespread tactics used by bullies in the lineup to intimidate surfers they don’t recognize.
  • Hostile surfing: Aggressive behavior toward non-locals is often displayed through disruptive surfing maneuvers purposely meant to ruin a ride. These maneuvers include dropping-in, blocking, leash-grabbing, and angling in front of unwelcome surfers.
  • Vandalism: Damaging surfboards and vehicles are common crimes committed by crazed locals in attempt to keep outsiders from returning to a surf spot.
  • Violence: In extreme cases, unwanted visiting surfers are physically attacked; and in a few (thankfully very rare) instances, some have even been killed.

Dealing with Localism

To avoid friction when surfing a break for the first time, follow these suggestions:

Scope it Out

Talk to those who have surfed the spot. Find out what the vibe is like and get advice regarding who to steer clear of in the water. Once there, look to see how long the lulls are, how many boards are in the water, where they’re lining up, and how surfers are taking turns for waves. Is it an orderly scene or a hectic free-for-all? Are there any lower-quality, empty peaks inside or off to the side? If the break has a left and right, is one side much more heavily favored? Gather answers to these questions and use this knowledge to assimilate and/or minimize competition.

Surf with a Buddy

Avoid surfing a break alone for the first time, but don't show up with a crowd either. There is definitely safety in numbers. Just the same, a large group of visiting surfers is rarely welcomed anywhere.

Conform

If the majority of surfers in the lineup are on shortboards, don't paddle up on a longboard. If everyone’s surfing a longboard, don't show up with a stand-up paddle board. Just like the schoolyard bully, unfriendly locals will tend to target the “new kid” even more if he/she is “different.”

Be Respectful

It’s extremely important to practice appropriate surf etiquette when venturing to a new spot. A disrespectful surfer that nobody recognizes is an instant target. This also goes for the beach — never litter!

Assess the Vibe

Pay attention to how other surfers are interacting. Are they relaxed, talking, and having fun? Or are they serious, grumpy, and uptight? If there’s a lot of tension in the air, be extra vigilant.

Identify the Regulars

The surfers who are always in the right spot, talking to others, and taking most of the waves are probably locals. Be sure to show those surfers a little added respect.

Stay Clear

Give anyone who is behaving aggressively, complaining about the crowd, posturing, or hassling other surfers, a lot of space.

Be Cool

Smile, be friendly, and occasionally pay it forward by giving up a turn, even on a choice wave. Also look for opportunities to reunite surfers who aren’t wearing a leash with a runaway board. This is a great way to make friends quickly.

Hot Tip: Profiling

Hostile natives who are obsessed with crowd control at their treasured break come in all shapes, sizes, genders, and ages. Younger, testosterone-driven males tend to be on the biggest mission, and are the ones who usually take things way too far. However, don’t be surprised if an overweight elderly woman or a balding, non-surfer-looking gent suddenly goes a little crazy in the lineup.

Stay Calm

Keep cool, even if faced with irrational anger. Apologize for any mistakes and make sure you don’t fuel the fire. However, when being unfairly targeted, displaying a little confidence might deter future confrontations and earn a little respect from any level-headed locals who may be watching.

Avoid Fights

Recognize when a situation is escalating toward violence and take the next wave in to the beach if possible. If physically provoked, paddle toward other surfers who seem neutral. Other boards and bodies will make it a little more difficult for the attacker to inflict damage even if no other surfers step up and intervene.

Can’t We All Just Get Along?

It’s important to understand the frustration local surfers feel when visitors overrun their spot. However, everyone has the same right to surf at any break. At the end of the day, the best thing any surfer can do to minimize localism is to be respectful, spread aloha, and do their best to be part of the solution.

Surf localism can be vicious. This surfing guide helps explain what fuels a lot of the negative behavior, and provides some simple and effective avoidance tactics.
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